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Emergency Planning 101

If you work in a high-rise office building in New York City, you’ve very likely recently been in an emergency evacuation drill. You’ve probably also seen improved exit signs and lighting. And if you don’t have a sprinkler system in your offices yet, you will. They’re required by 2019. All of those measures, and more, are mandated by city regulations set in motion after 9/11 and passed in 2006.

But those rules don’t apply to residential buildings.

If you’re breathing a sign of relief right now, think again.

First, regulations governing your building may not be as stringent as those for office buildings, but of course they do exist. And as the recent tragedies in Japan make clear, disaster planning is always a work in progress. If years or even months have passed since you last focused on the subject, chances are good that, legally sound or not, your preparations are outdated. “Japan’s problems are a reminder that we are a city that’s dense – a dense environment where a lot of things can and do happen,” points out Chris Gilbride, a spokesman for the New York City Office of Emergency Management (OEM). “It doesn’t have to be an earthquake to really impact your day. Although the emergency isn’t happening here now, now is the time to take the steps to plan for one.”

“It’s not just about the plan you did five years ago and put on the shelf,” adds Ira Tannenbaum, OEM director of public/private initiatives. “It’s about keeping it current, practicing it on a regular basis, updating it so it has the right information for today.”

Also, the regulations for the city’s office buildings – developed from recommendations by the multi-discipline World Trade Center Building Task Force – can serve as useful guidelines for managers who want to take steps in residential buildings beyond what the city requires. “The regulations are well thought-out and are put there for a reason,” says Tannenbaum. “It would certainly behoove anyone who wants to take that next step to look at what’s been done for the commercial side.”

After all, disasters don’t single out offices, a point that some managers and boards have taken to heart. Take the example of the Albanese Organization, which manages both residential and commercial buildings. When Michael Gubbins, the company’s director of residential management, compared all the relevant rules for preparing for the worst, he found those for his condo and rental buildings, as he succinctly puts it, “light.” Where a multi-dwelling residential building must have fire safety plans and post maps of fire exits, to give a couple of the most notable requirements, a high-rise office building must also have an emergency action plan and an accountability process to locate residents and staff after all hell has broken loose.


Not Just Fire

There was a time not so long ago when emergency planning in the city was mostly just for fires. But New Yorkers now know that calamities can range from the unthinkable (the “dirty bomb” threat for which emergency officials held a citywide drill in April) to the bizarre (a Yankee pitcher flying a small plane into a condo living room on East 72nd Street in 2006, or a falling crane demolishing a building on East 50th Street in 2008).

Then there are other kinds of terrorist attacks, blackouts, and even hurricanes and earthquakes. Even something like an exploding manhole cover or the 2007 steam pipe explosion that blew a crater on Lexington and 40th Street can have an impact on people in their homes. With the steam pipe explosion, officials evacuated four square blocks, but people accustomed to drills left behind belongings they thought they would return to minutes later.

“A lot of people were coming up to me saying, ‘I left my wallet in my desk,’ or ‘I left my tickets for the theater tonight; my wife is going to kill me,’” says Tannenbaum. “The lesson is that you have to be ready for emergencies, not just pay them lip service.”

With all of that in mind, the Albanese Organization hired Massey Disaster Planning to come up with disaster and emergency plans for all its buildings, not just those with offices – including The Visionaire, a new condo building in Battery Park City. “A lot of our residents lived here during 9/11,” says Gubbins. “A lot of lessons were learned. They realize what’s happening in Japan is not just happening in a foreign land. It could happen on their doorstep today.” The strategy includes:

• Building-specific emergency plans, including structural plans and contact information for residents, kept at concierge desks on paper and on iPads

• Intensive quarterly fire and disaster training for building staff

• Educational events once or twice a year for residents (most recently held in April)

• Orientation sessions when residents move in

• Involvement with local community emergency response teams (CERT)

• Communication plans recommended for residents that include both a private system called BuildingLink and the public Notify NYC system

It would be natural at this point for many readers to be summoning up their mental calculators for adding the costs of a private security firm, an iPad, communication software, and more. It’s true that The Visionaire – where studios start at $690,000 – may be able to afford things that are out of reach of other buildings. But you still can take almost all the same basic steps, and, as OEM’s Tannenbaum points out: “You have the opportunity as someone who lives in the city to get information and get direction.”


Advice and Innovations

In fact, the wealth of free expertise and advice is massive. The basics include keeping go-bags current (including updating contact lists and important paperwork), having a building command center, and establishing rally points. The biggest challenge for emergency professionals is in motivating boards, managers, residents, and staff to take advantage of the resources. “The number-one reason that people don’t prepare for emergencies is that they don’t think about it,” says OEM’s Gilbride. “They don’t think it’s going to happen to them.”

One of the most powerful ways to make the subject fresh is to ask representatives from OEM and the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) to speak to your residents. The impact of a live presentation can be striking, especially when presenters relate actual anecdotes and use props. “We like to show them things that have happened in houses,” says Lt. Anthony Mancuso of the FDNY fire safety education unit. “We’ll show them old extension cords that have melted, evidence of how hot a fire can get, or new products like smoke alarms with 10-year lithium batteries.” He knows he has gotten through when audience members start talking about their own experiences. “I’m always amazed at how many people say, ‘I didn’t know that,’” he says. “There’s always something to learn.” n



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